Today’s blog is part of an occasional series dedicated to answering visitors’ questions.
The two photos below show the Front Parlor of the Driehaus Museum’s first floor. The top photo is in circa 1883 when the Nickersons lived here, while the other shows, of course, how it looks today.
It’s clear from these photos that the Nickerson era, or even Gilded Age America’s full interpretation of Victorian domestic décor, have not been re-created in here. Trust us when we say we have nothing against the Victorians, but honestly—you’d hardly be able to move without jostling a beautiful Chinese vase and its dozens of close neighbors, domino-style, off the shelves in the wainscoting. Come to think of it, it’s a little hard to see the wainscoting for all the objets d’art. In order to perfectly balance a display of Gilded Age taste in decorative objects with the original design of the interiors, the Museum takes a more restrained approach.
Still, you may notice the concentration of fine and decorative arts is denser in these first-floor rooms than, say, in Mrs. Nickerson’s former bedroom on the second floor, where the objects on display are a beautiful Herter Brothers piece of furniture and Tiffany-style iridescent glass tile fire screen. Some historic house enthusiasts may be accustomed to seeing a period bed or vanity; but instead, they get a good look at the elegant mahogany wainscoting with gleaming brass accents, or the original sky-blue Low Art tile of the fireplace hearth.
So that’s the first reason why domestic bedroom furniture has not, to date, been installed in these spaces. The exemplary craftsmanship of the Nickerson mansion, which was commissioned from the architectural firm of Burling & Whitehouse in 1879 and completed in 1883, is just too impressive to obscure. So while the galleries on the first floor offer a look at a wide variety of late 19th and early 20th-century European and American sculpture, decorative objects, furniture, paintings, glassware, lamps, and chandeliers, the second floor contributes to a broader discussion of the architecture and design of the same period. That’s why our guides will show you Mrs. Nickerson’s Bedroom and talk about the Gilded Age trend of designing simple, unadorned spaces for a woman’s repose; or the Sitting Room as a representation of the fashionable incorporation of Moorish and Near Eastern styles; or Mr. Nickerson’s Bedroom and the revival of Italian Renaissance motifs by America’s wealthiest men. These rooms can tell some pretty fascinating stories about American culture at the time decorators were making their choice of fabrics, wood paneling, flooring, and fireplaces.
Additionally, since the Driehaus Museum opened in 2008, these second-floor galleries were envisioned as future exhibition space to someday showcase fine and decorative arts of, and inspired by, the period. What better space to enjoy an exhibit in, after all, than these immersive and beautiful environments that served as comfortable living quarters for one of Chicago’s grand families? Although housed in a historic space, the Museum strives to be more than a preserved relic of a bygone history, but a vibrant space that comes to life for our visitors. (Those who join us for our many concerts, lectures, and other public programs can attest to that.)
The launching of the Museum’s exhibitions program isn’t far away now, but until then, be sure to ask the nearest guide where that lovely green marble in Mr. Nickerson’s fireplace surround comes from—or even better, why?—or which design theories inspired the shape of the Sitting Room’s oriel window.